The #1 Insight Of The #1 Psychologist
This 1979 video clip gives a fascinating 4-minute overview of one of psychology's most important ideas.
To give context...
According to the American Psychological Association, the most eminent psychologist of the 20th century is BF Skinner, who pioneered the field of behaviorism, which dominated psychology in the 1950s.
Its ideas have been applied to everything from gambling and game design to education, government, and AI.
The clip reveals several counterintuitive findings:
#1: Surprisingly complex behaviors can be trained into "stupid" animals through rewards in the environment
The video shows how a pigeon could be trained to spin around in minutes with just food pellets. No human language or gestures. Just rewards from the environment.
#2: Variable rewards are surprisingly effective
One would think that giving out a predictable reward every time an action is completed would lead to the best results. But, it was found that varying the reward schedule can work wonders.
This quote from the clip stands out:
"He found that a pigeon will persist in pecking thousands of times to earn a single food pellet. In other words, the schedule of reinforcement could be varied."
#3: Reinforcement also works on humans
By the 1960s, 6,000+ experiments on 38 species showed the power of behaviorism. Skinner also found that reinforcement works on humans.
In some ways, it showed that just as animals may be used to test the potential impact of drugs on humans, animals can also be used to test the potential impact of reinforcement (to a certain extent at least).
Thought Leadership Takeaways
TAKEAWAY #1. Every theory has its limits
Based on the impressive, measurable success of short-term behaviors in laboratory conditions, the field started getting grand ambitions of reengineering society. This is where the power of behaviorism started to falter in the 1960s and where it started to become over-applied and misapplied. I'll post more on this soon.
When a theory starts working in surprising ways, it can be tempting to extrapolate the findings and show how it can change everything as we know it.
When you get surprisingly good findings, it's important to remain both skeptical and curious without jumping to premature huge conclusions that we want to be true.
Takeaway #2. Every backlash has its limits
When I first learned about behaviorism, I learned about it as almost an entirely negative thing, because of the backlash against it.
I blamed it for our overly measured, externally reinforced education system. What I now know is that what we see in the education system is an over-application and misapplication of behaviorism. Even Skinner was critical of how behaviorism was applied to education.
I used to think that it was only worth reading modern research, because it's the most up-to-date. But as I understand that backlashes often throw away the baby with the bathwater, I've found that it's always important to go back to the original sources in order to synthesize all perspectives.
Video Clip Source
The majority of the documentary is actually about how Skinner’s ideas from his 1948 book, Walden Two, were applied by readers to create an actual utopian community. The documentary is about him visiting the community for the second time to see how its doing and to interact with its members.
First, I find it interesting when thinkers create fiction to better communicate their non-fiction ideas. Writing a fiction book is on my bucket list.
The Big Picture
The Big Picture is a key section of every post. Like seeing the cover photo of a puzzle box so you know where to place a puzzle piece, the Big Picture helps you contextualize each post in the big picture of thought leadership so you can more effectively apply it.
In today’s Big Picture, I’m going to build on the two takeaways above and give you an amazingly powerful, but unknown (outside of academia) mental model that will help you create ideas that rise above the noise of the Internet.